On Thursday, May 18, 2023, new legislation that could pose significant barriers to autonomous truck deployment passed through the California Assembly Appropriations Committee with bipartisan support. AB 316 prohibits a vehicle “with a gross weight of 10,001 pounds or more on public roads for testing purposes, transporting goods, or transporting passengers” without a human operator. Currently, autonomous trucks are not permitted in California by regulation, but that framework could change soon.
California has a long history of supporting autonomous vehicle (AV) development and contains some of the nation’s most important ports – a key testing ground for autonomous trucking technology. The bill, authored by Assemblymembers Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) and Friedman (D-Glendale) is gaining momentum, but lawmakers should ensure that any legislation they pass is amended to allow autonomous trucks to eventually operate in their state.
Proponents of the measure are accusing autonomous trucks of strictly being a cost-saving strategy. Labor Unions argue that the AV industry would eliminate the need for truck drivers, creating catastrophic job losses. Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry argued that autonomous trucking would cost the US as many as 400,000 good-paying jobs.
However, as the trucking industry continues to work through a historic driver shortage, AV advocates point out that technology could work with drivers to create a better work environment and increase logistical efficiency. Eric Tanenblatt, Dentons’ Global Chair of Public Policy and Regulation and Co-leader of the firm’s global autonomous vehicle practice, told Law360, “Autonomous technology holds great societal promise but proposals such as AB 316 run the risk of stifling development.” Last year, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) estimated that an autonomous trucking industry could cause California’s economy to grow by as much as $6.5 billion. Instead of creating massive driver layoffs, the SVLG estimated the industry would actually add 2,400 jobs to the state’s labor pool. In 2021, the US Department of Transportation found that level 4 and 5 long-haul autonomous trucks would create 26,000 to 35,000 jobs across the US.
AB 316 could be consequential for California’s AV industry and the country. “Due to California’s role as a major hub for autonomous technology, this proposal, if adopted could have an outsized influence on the industry. By prohibiting self-driving trucks outright, California could restrict the full potential of this technology in a state that is often seen as a leader in this space,” says Tanenblatt.
Autonomous trucking could revolutionize the logistics industry and increase efficiency by leaps and bounds. Instead of following driver regulations, autonomous trucks could operate long hauls for hours without worrying about a decline in driver awareness and safety. Meanwhile, truck drivers could work first and last-mile deliveries which are a more difficult task for autonomous vehicles to complete while still maintaining their employment and remaining close to the communities they call home. With a complex ecosystem of autonomous haulers and truck drivers, companies could deliver products quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality or employment.
Since there is no federal framework for Avs, developers face a patchwork of state laws and regulations. This system could limit the industry’s growth and cause complex legal issues due to variability between state statutes. For instance, autonomous trucking could be legal in one state but face new requirements at another state’s border, causing the shipment to face delays and frustrations. Tanenblatt notes, “A.B.316 demonstrates the need for more comprehensive frameworks and approaches, and reflects the struggle that states are having on how best to craft accurate regulations for driverless technology in the absence of federal framework.”
The Driverless Commute will continue to follow this story closely as it has major ramifications for the future of autonomous freight. For more information, subscribe to the Driverless Commute for more.